“The college shouldn’t compromise at all. The college is in the right, and the company is in the wrong.”
— Tim Hermach, president of the Native Forest Council, a national environmental group based in Eugene, Ore., on the pipeline controversy.
“If Piedmont (Natural Gas) wasn’t aware of the impact the pipeline would have on the environment and the community, then we need greater regulation to ensure that due diligence is a prerequisite. For Piedmont to be unaware of the impact of its pipeline … is simply unacceptable.”
— Sierra Club Central Piedmont Chapter Chairman Bill Gupton on the planned natural gas pipeline the utility company plans to run through an ecological preserve owned by Davidson College.
Pipeline deal likely, Davidson College says
John Deem. May 25, 2012
Critics of Piedmont Natural Gas say school shouldn’t give in.
Piedmont Natural Gas and Davidson College are close to an agreement that would reroute a proposed new pipeline to bypass the most sensitive areas of the school’s nature preserve, sources tell the Lake Norman Citizen.
“We have had productive discussions with Piedmont about addressing Davidson College’s concerns regarding the pipeline,” the school confirms in a written statement in response to questions from the Citizen. “We hope to reach an agreement with (Piedmont) soon that includes changing the original route of the pipeline to avoid most of the impact on the Davidson College Ecological Preserve.”
But leaders of national and regional environmental groups suggest an acceptable end to the dispute doesn’t justify what they consider to be Piedmont’s suspect means to route the pipeline through environmentally sensitive portions of the 200-acre preserve, or the company declaring that its pipeline trumps the college’s preference to protect the property as a nature preserve, outdoor classroom and laboratory for students and scientists.
“The college shouldn’t compromise at all,” says Tim Hermach, president of the Native Forest Council, a national environmental group based in Eugene, Ore. “The college is in the right, and the company is in the wrong.”
Hermach and other critics cite, among other issues, official claims by Davidson College that Piedmont has acted unlawfully during the planning process for the pipeline.
“Piedmont’s strategy of keeping Davidson (College) in the dark about the pipeline project was abetted by repeated unlawful trespasses by Piedmont and its contractors on Davidson’s property,” the college argues in a Feb. 9 memo from its lawyers to state and federal regulators. “The College has become aware of multiple incidents when Piedmont or its contractors unlawfully trespassed on the College’s property, and believes that there have likely been many more.”
And, the lawyers argue, Piedmont’s illegal activity didn’t end with trespassing. In September of 2011, they say in the memo, a contractor for Piedmont sought permission from the college “to park trucks on Davidson College property next to (N.C.) 115, purportedly for safety reasons.” The college approved the request.
The next day, the college discovered that the contractor had cleared a swath of woods 300 feet long and 20 feet wide.
The college “contacted Piedmont’s project manager immediately,” the lawyers say. “The project manager apologized and promised to look into the situation. However, nothing whatsoever happened in response to the complaint until January 2012, when Piedmont’s project manager and, later, its counsel, sought to open negotiations about the damage to Davidson’s property. The issue of the damage to Davidson’s property remains unresolved.”
Which, Hermach and others argue, is exactly the way any negotiations between Davidson and Piedmont should remain until the company reroutes the pipeline away from the college’s property, covers all of the college’s related legal fees, and pays restitution for its unapproved entry to Davidson’s property and clearing of trees.
But, Hermach adds, it’s not so easy for a 1,900-student college to outlast a $1.4 billion utility in a protracted regulatory and legal battle.
“Companies consider those kinds of expenses to be part of the cost of doing business,” Hermach notes. “And, frankly, the law is on their side.”
Piedmont has repeatedly declined the Citizen’s request for comment.
‘Doesn’t make sense’
For 13 years, Davidson biology professor Michael Dorcas and his students have studied the habits of reptiles and amphibians in a hardwood forest in the northern section of the preserve, at the edge of the school’s campus.
“Many of these projects resulted in publications by students in top peer-reviewed journals, and presentations at scientific meetings,” Dorcas says. “These experiences have been extremely valuable to them and greatly increased their ability to develop into scientists. Many are now pursuing Ph.D programs, or have received their Ph.Ds already.”
That section of the preserve lies directly in the original proposed path of Piedmont’s pipeline.
“The study site will be destroyed by the pipeline if the route they have proposed is used,” Dorcas. “I understand the need to provide energy, but surely there is a way in which (Piedmont) can keep from detrimentally impacting the opportunities the preserve provides for Davidson students and the local school groups that have visited our long-term study sites.”
“The pipeline would be devastating to future projects in addition to long-term studies,” says Davidson biology student Christiana Akins. “In fact, just calling the space an ‘ecological preserve’ denotes that it is land set aside to avoid disturbance. Why would a company decide it’s a good idea to put its pipeline directly through a preserve? It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
The ultimate irony in Davidson, though, is that the very characteristic that makes the site so important to the college also makes it attractive to Piedmont. In effect, by protecting the land from development, the college made it the path of least resistance for the pipeline. No homes would be bulldozed, no businesses uprooted, just the clearing of land largely out of public view.
Had the college put up instructional buildings, dormitories or other facilities on the land, Piedmont likely would have had little interest in running its pipeline through the area.
Turtles, birds and trees, however, are much less of an obstacle than buildings.
Bill Gupton has a unique perspective on the pipeline issue. Four decades after graduating from Davidson College, he now is chairman of the Central Piedmont Chapter of the Seirra Club. Gupton suggests that if Piedmont was aware of the importance of the preserve to the college and the extent of the instruction and research taking place there, then the company displayed extraordinary audacity in concluding that the best use of the land was as the site of a natural gas pipeline.
“If Piedmont wasn’t aware of the impact the pipeline would have on the environment and the community, then we need greater regulation to ensure that due diligence is a prerequisite” for utilities before they are allowed to condemn private property, Gupton says. “For Piedmont to be unaware of the impact of its pipeline … is simply unacceptable.”
Gupton notes that state and federal officials make decisions based on the information before them.
“That’s why, in the short term, I’d encourage anyone who has a concern about the pipeline to write a letter to the (N.C.) Utilities Commission,” he says. “Long term, we have to make sure that regulations are in place to ensure that any utility has to consider the environmental impact of their decisions. Locally, citizens should write to Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, who lives right down the road in Cornelius. … And they should write to (N.C. Rep.) Ruth Samuelson (of Charlotte), who’s chair of the House Environment Committee.”
Officials say Piedmont has not filed revised applications for required state and federal permits that would reflect a change in course for the Davidson portion of the proposed pipeline, which would cover more than 100 miles in all.
That means Piedmont’s original plan, which calls for running the pipeline through the Davidson College Ecological Preserve, is still the only one under consideration by state and federal permitting authorities, including the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the N.C. Utilities Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In early February, Davidson College launched an aggressive attack (marshaled by attorneys at legal powerhouse McGuire Woods) against Piedmont’s plan. The path of the pipeline, according to the college’s letter to state and federal permitting agencies, “devastates the Davidson Ecological Preserve.”
“DENR has not issued any response to Davidson College but has had discussions with their attorney and we have had discussions with the Army Corps of Engineers concerning the proposed routes,” says DENR’s Rob Krebs, who declined to give details of those talks.
Utilities generally try to follow existing rights of way when installing new lines. Two gas lines already cross through Davidson near where Piedmont plans its new pipeline, and in a letter to the N.C. Utilities Commission, the college argues that the company could meet its needs using those rights of way.
DENR’s primary focus in this and other utility permits is water quality, and, so far, the agency has expressed no objection to the pipeline. However, DENR also shares plans for
utility projects with the N.C. Wildlife Commission, which “can comment on potential impacts to endangered species, habitat loss or habitat fragmentation if those are affected by the project,” says DENR spokeswoman Susan Massingale.
The Wildlife Commission offered no comments to the Utilities Commission regarding the Piedmont pipeline, Massingale adds.
In the meantime, representatives from Piedmont and Davidson continue their deliberations in a regulatory tussle that likely will have only one true winner: their lawyers.